Escape Rooms Big and Small

April 6, 2016 by Nate Martin

An oft-discussed (and nearly as oft-misunderstood) topic in escape room design is size. Proponents of small rooms debate hotly with proponents of large rooms over which is the better design, and which is the better experience.

In my view, this debate, without greater context, is nonsense. There are amazing small games out there. There are amazing large games out there (See: Puzzle Break’s current offerings). And if I may read your mind for a moment, you’re wrong. This isn’t going to be a strawman argument about execution, at least not in the way you’re thinking. Of course there are piss-poor escape rooms out there that are small, and large, and every size. However, many of these games are kneecapped by any number of problems unrelated to their size, ranging from terrible customer service, to low quality puzzles, to puzzles that are way too easy/hard (or worse: both), to gadgetry that fails left and right, and everything in the middle. These are rooms outside the scope of today.

What I’d like to discuss here are rooms that are bad because they are big, or because they are small, and why. These rooms definitely exist, and I’m sure the escape room super-veterans out there can think of a few examples of both. NOTE: Overcrowding is a problem agnostic to room size, and I’ll get to that at the end.

First, small rooms that are bad because they are small. As it happens, real estate ain’t cheap. Having several acres of escape room isn’t an option for most operators, so, folks make do with what they have. And sometimes, the end result is playing an escape room in a glorified elevator. The most frequent problem with these tiny spaces (aside from overcrowding, which I promise to get to) is there’s only a finite amount of physical content you can get into a place without warping space & time (note: if you’ve got a guy that can warp space & time, send him my way). One of the chief virtues of an escape room experience is a wonderful assortment of activities. Strictly speaking, less space = less content. I’ve played a handful of rooms with no more than 3 puzzles, and each puzzle was unfairly obtuse to draw out the experience to an hour (and in one case, 30 minutes). How can these problems be avoided from a design perspective? Ensuring there is sufficient puzzle content, and it is tuned properly for difficulty. And if the experience is less than an hour, scale down the price.

Next, large rooms that are bad because they are large. The most frequent problem with these (aside from overcrowding) is rampant “I have nothing to do” disease. When you’ve got 9 people staring at a single puzzle, and that single puzzle can reasonably be worked on by a maximum of 3 people, you’ve got 6 poor jerks sitting there with nothing to do. Worse, if this trend repeats itself for the duration of the experience, those same 6 folks are going to be in for a pretty bad experience. This can sometimes be a symptom of shoehorning an experience flow designed for a small group onto a large group, but this is an entirely separate conversation for a future post on various game flows. How can these problems be avoided from a design perspective? Ensuring there is sufficient puzzle content, and it is tuned properly for difficulty.

Notice a trend? Bottom line: Having the right amount well-balanced content for the right amount of players in the right amount of size will cure what ails ya.

NOTE: All rooms of all sizes can suffer from overcrowding. All too often I see operators “cheat” the number of players that should be in the room by various margins. A room that is a great experience for 2-4 players will allow up to 6. A room ideal for 3-6 will cap at 8. Rooms for 6-8 will allow up to 10, etc. This has burned a number of experienced players, and is particularly frustrating to me at Puzzle Break.

Our rooms are enormous with vast amounts of clue & puzzle content. Our largest room is bigger than some small houses, and has content for up to 14 people (I don’t think any group smaller than 8 has ever escaped).  And every week, we get a mail from someone: “Hey I have a group of 4, can we play your largest room with no one else?” These poor souls have been burned one-too-many times and are trained into thinking a room for up to 14 is going to be better played with 4, and I can’t say as I blame them.

Last but not least, be extremely wary about rooms with enormous player ranges. A room for 2-4 players makes sense. A room for 6-12 players makes sense. A room for 2-12 players is absurd. There’s no experience (in my experience) that can possibly be a good time for both 2 people and 12 people.


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